United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Tacoma
ORDER REVERSING AND REMANDING DEFENDANT'S
DECISION TO DENY BENEFITS
B. Leighton United States District Judge
MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff Burden's
Complaint [Dkt. 6] for review of the Social Security
Commissioner's denial of her applications for disability
insurance and supplemental security income benefits.
suffered from degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine,
heart disease, affective disorder, anxiety disorder, and
substance abuse disorder. See Dkt. 9, Administrative
Record 24. She applied for disability insurance and SSI
benefits in March 2010, alleging she became disabled
beginning in June 2008. See AR 21. Those
applications were denied upon initial administrative review
and on reconsideration. See id. After separate
hearings, Burden twice received decisions finding her not to
be disabled that were remanded by the Appeals Council.
See AR 21-22. A third hearing was held before
Administrative Law Judge Wayne N. Araki in June 2015.
See AR 22. Burden, represented by a non-attorney
representative, appeared and testified, as did a vocational
expert. See AR 162-216.
again determined Burden not to be disabled. See AR
18-48. The Appeals Council denied Burden's request for
review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of
the Commissioner of Social Security. See AR 6-12; 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481. In March 2017, Burden
filed a complaint in this Court seeking judicial review of
the Commissioner's final decision. See Dkt. 6.
argues that the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits
should be reversed and remanded for an immediate award of
benefits or for further administrative proceedings because
the ALJ erred in evaluating the medical evidence in the
record and Burden's testimony, and therefore in finding
at step five of the sequential evaluation process that Burden
was capable of performing work available in the national
Commissioner argues that the ALJ did not err in evaluating
the medical evidence or Burden's testimony, so the
ALJ's finding that Burden was not disabled was supported
by substantial evidence and should be affirmed.
Commissioner's determination that a claimant is not
disabled must be upheld by the Court if the Commissioner
applied the “proper legal standards” and if
“substantial evidence in the record as a whole
supports” that determination. See Hoffman v.
Heckler, 785 F.2d 1423, 1425 (9th Cir. 1986); see
also Batson v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d
1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004); Carr v. Sullivan, 772
F.Supp. 522, 525 (E.D. Wash. 1991) (“A decision
supported by substantial evidence will, nevertheless, be set
aside if the proper legal standards were not applied in
weighing the evidence and making the decision.”)
(citing Brawner v. Sec'y of Health and Human
Services, 839 F.2d 432, 433 (9th Cir. 1987)).
evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable
mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.”
Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)
(citation omitted); see also Batson, 359 F.3d at
1193 (“[T]he Commissioner's findings are upheld if
supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the
record.”). “The substantial evidence test
requires that the reviewing court determine” whether
the Commissioner's decision is “supported by more
than a scintilla of evidence, although less than a
preponderance of the evidence is required.”
Sorenson v. Weinberger, 514 F.2d 1112, 1119 n.10
(9th Cir. 1975). “If the evidence admits of more than
one rational interpretation, ” the Commissioner's
decision must be upheld. Allen v. Heckler, 749 F.2d
577, 579 (9th Cir. 1984) (“Where there is conflicting
evidence sufficient to support either outcome, we must affirm
the decision actually made.”) (quoting Rhinehart v.
Finch, 438 F.2d 920, 921 (9th Cir. 1971)).
The Medical Evidence in the Record
determines credibility and resolves ambiguities and conflicts
in the medical evidence. See Reddick v. Chater, 157
F.3d 715, 722 (9th Cir. 1998). Where the medical evidence in
the record is not conclusive, “questions of credibility
and resolution of conflicts” are solely the functions
of the ALJ. Sample v. Schweiker, 694 F.2d 639, 642
(9th Cir. 1982). In such cases, “the ALJ's
conclusion must be upheld.” Morgan v. Comm'r,
Soc. Sec. Admin., 169 F.3d 595, 601 (9th Cir. 1999).
Determining whether inconsistencies in the medical evidence
“are material (or are in fact inconsistencies at all)
and whether certain factors are relevant to discount”
the opinions of medical experts “falls within this
responsibility.” Id. at 603.
resolving questions of credibility and conflicts in the
evidence, an ALJ's findings “must be supported by
specific, cogent reasons.” Reddick, 157 F.3d
at 725. The ALJ can do this “by setting out a detailed
and thorough summary of the facts and conflicting clinical
evidence, stating his interpretation thereof, and making
findings.” Id. The ALJ also may draw
inferences “logically flowing from the evidence.”
Sample, 694 F.2d at 642. Further, the Court may draw
“specific and legitimate inferences from the ALJ's
opinion.” Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747,
755 (9th Cir. 1989).
argues that the ALJ erred by failing to fully incorporate the
opinion of state agency medical consultant Nathaniel Arcega,
M.D. See Dkt. 11 at 6. The Court agrees.
“[s]tate agency medical and psychological
consultant” may be treated as a “highly
qualified” physician with expertise in evaluating
“medical issues in disability claims.” Social
Security Ruling 96-6p, 1996 WL 374180 *2. Dr. Arcega reviewed
the record and found that, among other limitations, Burden
could stand or walk for at least two hours in an eight-hour
workday but could not stand or walk for about six hours in an
eight-hour workday. See AR 751. The ALJ gave
significant weight to ...